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Western universities expanding joint ventures in China

Duke Kunshan University (DKU) opened to its first student intake last month on a 200-acre campus site within the Kunshan Yangcheng Lake Science Park in Kunshan, China. An ambitious new Sino-American joint venture between Duke University and Wuhan University  – both top-ranked institutions in their own right – Duke Kunshan is only the latest in a series of high profile co-ventures and collaborative Sino-foreign programme offerings launching in China in recent years.


An architectural rendering of the new Duke Kunshan campus

Launching with programmes in global health, medical physics and management studies, Duke Kunshan aims to blend “liberal education with Chinese tradition in a new approach to elite higher education in China.” The new university in Kunshan joins another high-profile venture, Shanghai New York University (a new institution formed in partnership between New York University (NYU) and East China Normal University (ECNU)) which accepted its first students in 2013.

These latest openings, both new institutions launched by notable educational brands, operate with full approval of the Chinese Ministry of Education and arise from regulations introduced by the Chinese government a decade ago to permit the establishment of foreign university campuses within China. In the years since, a number of Western institutions have moved to expand their operations in China, whether in the form of programmes offered jointly with Chinese universities or, as in the case of Duke Kunshan or Shanghai New York, the creation of entirely new universities.

Other recent examples from just the past few months:

  • In June, the London Business School announced a new partnership with Fudan University to offer a Masters in Management degree beginning in September 2015. The announcements adds to Fudan’s already-impressive field of foreign partnerships in advanced business studies, including a link with MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
  • Also in June, Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management announced a joint MBA programme with Tsinghua University. Billed as the “only part-time, post-experience programme, conducted bilingually in English and Chinese (Mandarin) currently offered in the market,” the Cornell programme joins other long-standing Tsinghua partnerships with MIT and INSEAD.
  • Peking University and Northwestern University, via their respective schools of management studies, have launched a joint executive MBA programme this fall. With an attention-getting sticker price of US$150,000, the Peking-Northwestern programme is the latest addition in an impressive field of joint MBAs already offered in China via such institutions as the University of Southern California and Arizona State University.

These new partnerships are notable in that we see top-ranked foreign institutions linking up with leading universities in China, with the resulting programmes fully approved by the Ministry of Education. Many of these new ventures are heavily – or even entirely – weighted towards advanced business studies, essentially targeting the Chinese MBA market, and most are taught partly or entirely in English.

As such, they provide important directional indicators of continuing strong demand for graduate business studies in China, and of a market for Western graduate degrees that has not been fully served to this point. This is due in part to the continuing expansion and internationalisation of Chinese corporations, both public and privately owned, as well as the growing footprint of multinational firms within China.

“There are a lot of Chinese state-owned enterprises that have a mandate to westernise,” Kellogg Associate EMBA Dean Greg Hanifee said in a recent interview with the online news site Quartz. “And part of that is hiring talent that understands the West and how business operates there. Their motivation is to ensure that they remain competitive both in China and as they look to expand outside of China.”

This demand for management talent is further amplified by foreign multinationals operating in China. “Many companies are looking for bilingual executives who have both Western and Chinese experience and a top tier education,” adds Quartz. “But they’re hard to find. The gap is often filled by nationals educated abroad, or expats from places like Taiwan and Hong Kong who don’t necessarily understand the [Mainland Chinese market] very well.”

And while companies are looking for top management talent in China, many students are keen to improve their employment prospects by acquiring an advanced business degree. “The Chinese market is very competitive, and young undergraduates are seeking to upgrade their global skill sets in order to work both in multinational companies… And private enterprises,” said Roy Chason, assistant director of marketing at Shanghai’s China Europe International Business School, in a recent interview with

This expansion of foreign-Sino partnerships connects as well to two other important trends in the Chinese market. As we reported recently, China continues to strengthen its position as an important education hub and is now the third most-popular destination in the world for foreign higher education students.

Another recent report highlights the continued flattening of Chinese enrolment in US graduate studies.

These three intermingled trends – a softening Chinese graduate enrolment abroad, increasing inbound mobility to China, and an expansion of foreign-Sino education partnerships in China – will be fascinating to watch in the years ahead. This is not simply a situation where more and more Chinese students will now be able to acquire an advanced Western degree without ever leaving China. We may also be seeing in the new ventures announced this year a further evolution of education export models in the world’s biggest market.

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